Back in 1998 my boyfriend and I bought a PDQ36 catamaran together, moved aboard, and started sailing around the Chesapeake. Something strange happened each time we headed out on the Bay. Other boats would veer out of their way and come motor or sail close to us, sometimes even circling, to have a look. Sometimes they’d holler over, asking about the boat or just give us a friendly thumbs up gesture. We were a freak show, in the nicest sort of way. Seventeen years ago there weren’t that many multihulls sailing the Chesapeake.
Today it’s totally different. There are multihull regattas, multihull raft ups, multihull clubs, and multihull dealers all over the Bay. Catamarans are still part of my life, too. My boyfriend and I got married, cruised south on the PDQ36, came back to the Chesapeake, got pregnant, bought a bigger catamaran, and are raising our two kids aboard. When we head out on our St. Francis 44 now, nobody comes over to wave or ask questions. If anything, we’re the ones craning our necks to get a closer look at one of the many other multihulls we see out on any given day. Catamarans and trimarans are on the fast track of popularity among sailors all over, but they’re ideal for sailing the Chesapeake Bay.
We’ve all heard the saying that if you haven’t run aground then you haven’t actually sailed on the Chesapeake Bay. Well, that’s for monohull people. Okay, fine I have actually run my catamaran aground on the Bay. And we draw a little less than three feet. It’s a long story. Anyhow, most multihulls don’t have to even glance at the depth sounder even though it’s said that a six-foot tall person could wade 700,000 acres of the Chesapeake without water going over his or her head. As a cat sailors, we’ve often skimmed into four feet to help out a fellow monohull sailor with a tow.
We also cringe when we watch a naive monohull follow us into a shallow cove. Getting out of low water trouble is much easier on a cat. Sometimes we get a little cocky and venture into water safe enough for a toddler to wade in. Or we’re too busy sipping our cocktail that won’t spill because we’re not heeling to check our instruments. So yes, we may end up aground too. The nice part is that our whole world doesn’t tilt 45 degrees and get stuck there while waiting for help. Cats ground in a level fashion and tend to be easier to back off a muddy bar.
Anchoring is probably when we have the most fun on our two hulls. There have been many weekends in popular anchorages, such as St. Michaels, where we’ve been able to inch our way around and between the crowds of anchored boats and drop the hook all on our own in shallow water. We get to explore and nestle in so many protected, beautiful spots that deep keel boats dare not tread.
No wind, no problem
No wind is always a problem for sailors, but the light fluky winds we get on the Bay in the dog days of summer are a drag when sailing a heavy displacement boat. Catamarans usually have larger sail area and weigh less overall. This makes them ideal for light-wind sailing on those hot summer days. With the proper light-air sails, cats can enjoy sailing on days when their mono friends are switching to the iron genny.
On the level
Friends often gasp when we cast off the dock lines and raise the sails and all of our stuff is still lying around the inside of the boat, just as it was in the slip. It’s true, we don’t put anything away. Well, there is that one mason jar of loose change that I sometimes put a lid on if the forecast calls for chop or high winds. What’s more impressive than what we do put away is what we don’t put away. We don’t put away toys, including my daughter’s little collection of porcelain figurines. We don’t put away books or tools or even small flower vases. A nice steady swell is more comfortable than the Chesapeake chop. Sometimes an item will shift out of place. Generally though, we don’t worry about stuff inside the cabin.
Sailing on the level also means guests who don’t sail feel more comfortable. We’ve spent many memorable days sailing around with infants (aside from our own, of course), friends on crutches, older friends with limited mobility, and the hardest guest: friends in high heels. All of them did great on our catamaran, never feeling nervous or unsafe. We also keep our guests happy with good fresh cooked food (no need for soggy pre-made sandwiches). Without a leaning galley (we don’t even have a gimbaled stove), it’s really no problem going below to whip up a good meal.
Then there are the safety aspects of sailing flat. Too often we hear tragic stories of sailors falling overboard. It’s especially dangerous in cold water or on overnight sails. While not impossible, on our boat we would have to purposely throw ourselves overboard to end up in the water. Since catamarans accelerate rather than heel, there is less stress and fatigue on your body while underway, keeping the crew fresh and clear thinking for longer stretches. Without the heeling and the wet and the exhaustion, it’s safer. Well, safer unless you count that multihull sailors might consume more alcohol because our drinks also don’t spill.
There are a few disadvantages to multihull sailing on the Chesapeake, and most of those have to do with storage and maintenance. The marinas up and down the Bay are set up for “traditional sailing boats.” This means skinny boats. Our beast has a 24-foot beam. Yep, you could line up a fleet of J/Boats on our deck. While some marinas are starting to re-arrange and catch up with the times, most are still fairly limited in slips available to multihulls. And yes, slip fees tend to be higher.
It’s also slim pickings for hauling out. Right now there are only two facilities on the Chesapeake that can haul a boat with a 24-foot beam. Depending on how far you’re willing to travel, if you’re a catamaran or trimaran, you can’t exactly shop around. This, too, is changing slowly. Port Annapolis Marina on Back Creek has a new Travel Lift that will accommodate beamy multihulls. And hopefully other boat yards will follow suit.
The party boat Whether we’re sitting in our slip, out at anchor, or sailing around, the party tends to come to us. Catamarans have very spacious cockpits, plenty of inside space for when the weather turns foul, and wide flat decks for sunning or fishing or dancing the night away.
I remember one raft up in the West River where my husband and I were tucked in for the night and we suddenly heard footsteps. Then we heard a splash. Then more footsteps, and another splash. A quick check out the hatch confirmed what we thought: Some late night revelers were climbing up our back steps, scampering to the bow, diving off, swimming between our hulls, and doing it again and again. We’re heavy sleepers and we were pretty young then and without kids yet, so we didn’t mind.
Our friend with three teenagers wants to come spend a holiday weekend with us out sailing? No problem. Our Romanian friends invite their out-of-town cousins and aunts and uncles to see the Bay via our sailboat. Sure, why not? Our son wants to have his birthday party at his favorite anchorage on the Rhode River? You got it! Maybe cruising multihulls are a bad choice for introverts, but they are great fun around the Bay.
About the Author: Cindy Wallach has lived aboard for 16 years, currently on a St. Francis 44 catamaran on Back Creek with her husband, 10-year-old son, and three-year-old daughter. Click to Cindy’s blog at zachaboard.blogspot.com.